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Comfort eating and binge eating: How to recognise it and stop

Let’s start by asking what exactly is going on? Today, I'm going to share with you some questions that will help you start to answer what binge eating, overeating or comfort eating is for you.

I’m also going to help you to understand that it’s hard to stop eating. It’s not just a matter of willpower to be able to stop overeating. In fact, there’s quite a lot more to it than that. So, today I’ll start to show you what you need to know, to get a handle on your overeating.

But, first, I'm going to tell you what comfort eating is not. It's not a response to hunger. Biologically, we're supposed to just eat when we're hungry. So, the rest of the time we're doing something else. Eating junk food is comforting. It gives you a chemical response in your brain and body that makes you feel soothed, blissed-out, calm, numb, or gives you a high.

Whether you call it binge eating, stress eating, emotional eating, food addiction, a compulsion to eat, comfort eating, or just plain overeating, it's usually got some kind of comfort or psychological element behind it.

One of the things people often ask me is:

“Isn't it just a habit? Does it have to be something emotional?”

Of course, the answer to that is yes - it is a really deeply ingrained, very well grooved habit. But, there is also often something uncomfortable behind it as well (hence the label ‘comfort’ eating). Usually, overeating is a response to feeling uncomfortable about something. How do you know you are uncomfortable? You feel it. Discomfort is a feeling.

What I’m saying is that this is the tip of the iceberg. There is more to the way you feel that never gets discovered because you eat before you can discover. So, you’ve got to start asking what it is that's causing your discomfort.

What is the discomfort behind your comfort eating?

It can be an obvious thing. For example, if someone criticises you and you feel angry and you don't know what to do with that. You might find yourself eating a whole packet of biscuits. But, it also can be more subtle. Such as, in lockdown when you're bored, you might find yourself going to the fridge all the time because you think you have nothing better to do.

My experience is that boredom is a little bit deeper than just being bored. There's something more going on for many of us that hides a whole range of different feelings that are hard to admit or know what to do with. In lockdown, for example, most of us were traumatised. We had to endure massive changes, felt isolated or stuck in with the same people, and lost a great deal. It’s been a hell of an adjustment and still is. So, there are many different feelings that could lie behind lockdown overeating.

In this British stiff upper lip culture, we are not particularly good at knowing what to do with our feelings. So, we’re eating. My aim is to get you used to start to think about what you're actually doing, and why. Because this is the key to change.

So, here are some questions you can ask to help you start to understand what’s going on for you:

1. When is it that you overeat?

  • Is it late at night?
  • When you finish work?
  • Is it when you're alone?
  • When you're bored?
  • Stressed?
  • Tired?
  • Is it when you visit a certain relative?

2. Think of a recent time when you ate more than you wanted to.

  • What was happening just before?
  • What were you thinking?
  • How were you feeling?
  • Were you thinking thoughts like this:

“I don't care, I don't like myself anyway.”

“I'll be fat anyway.”

“I have to eat this now because if I have the food now, then tomorrow I won't buy anymore. Diet starts tomorrow!”

  • Or were you trying to treat yourself? Give yourself some kind of reward?
  • Did you have this thought?

“I deserve this”

Or

“I’m happy so I want to do what I like. Surely that is treating myself well?”

Or were you thinking

 “it will make me feel happy”

3. What would happen if you didn't go to the fridge or snack cupboard all day?

What kind of feelings would you be left with? I know the answer to this is often that you would have an overwhelming, all-pervasive, raging desire to eat. This is the most common thing that I hear. 

But, what I want you to start asking yourself is “So what?” What’s the worst that could happen? This is where you really start to understand that it’s discomfort that causes you to eat.

Having answered these questions, can you see that it’s possible that your eating might be in response to some emotion? So, what I’m asking you to do, is to start understanding what your discomfort is, how far back it goes, and then to find other ways to manage that discomfort.

To be able to stop overeating, you need to understand what’s going on for you. You need to find a place of compassion for that. A place of self-hatred is a poor place to give up comfort eating. But, from a place of genuine self-respect, and with education on how to manage feelings differently, it is possible to choose not to overeat.

Counselling Directory is not responsible for the articles published by members. The views expressed are those of the member who wrote the article.

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Written by Shelley Treacher Anxiety, Binge Eating & Loneliness

I run groups for people who experience frustration with overeating. My programme helps people to stop overeating or binge eating, naturally, with peer support, and without giving it up, until you're ready.

Shelley Treacher MA. MBACP accred.… Read more

Written by Shelley Treacher Anxiety, Binge Eating & Loneliness

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